Mailbag #21

Tangled, Thor, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Lilo & Stitch, The Incredibles, Star Wars, American Beauty and more.

Re. Tangled

I would appreciate it if you could explicate precisely the allusions in your penultimate paragraph to a “completely gratuitous act against the villain” and to a “flagrantly random deus ex machina.” It is possible that both of these, especially the latter, are simply things I didn’t notice or don’t remember. If that is the case, I have only minor (though still significant) disagreements with you on this film. If not, then your review is perhaps the most colossally wrong treatment you’ve ever given to any movie, and I will elucidate that statement if necessary. In the meantime, thanks for your good work.

Major spoiler warning! Proceed only if you’ve seen the film or don’t mind climactic spoilers …

  1. At the climax of the film, immediately after Flynn slashes Rapunzel’s hair, Mother Goethel begins shrieking and rapidly aging. She totters, losing her balance -- and that’s when Pascal, the chameleon, grabs (I think) Rapunzel’s hair lying on the floor and pulls it taut, deliberately tripping Mother Goethel so that she falls out of the window. There was absolutely no dramatic reason to do this because a) she was dying anyway and b) she could have tripped and toppled out the window without a figurative push from Pascal. And, of course, there’s no moral justification for it either.
  2. The movie very clearly sets up Rapunzel’s hair, and that only insofar as it is uncut and golden, as the magical agent with the regenerative properties from the flower. Flynn Rider cuts Rapunzel’s hair as his dying act. There is no slightest hint anywhere in the film to date of any loophole or back door by which additional regenerative powers might be produced to restore him. Suddenly ascribing regenerative powers in Rapunzel’s tears, is deus ex machina of a particularly egregious sort, more flagrant (though less annoying) than the ending of The Little Mermaid. That the original fairy tale allows Rapunzel to weep regenerative tears in no way affects the dramaturgical logic (or lack thereof) of the film.
  3. Even if I were wrong about both of the above, which I am not, I still doubt it would be “the most colossally wrong treatment I’ve ever given to any movie.” I’ve written a lot of reviews in ten years; surely at least some of them are more colossally wrong-headed than this one.
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Re. Thor

First, thank you for this site and all your work. It’s a pleasure to read your stuff. However, I disagree that Thor is lacking in moral lessons. [Spoilers follow.]

The scene where Loki visits Thor on earth (taken together with his failure to lift his hammer, I guess) was the turning point of Thor’s character. Loki tells him that he’s remaining powerless and exiled forever as a prerequisite for keeping the peace between Asgard and their enemies. Loki also lies to Thor that Odin died from the stress he caused, and that their mother hates him for this.

So Thor, already shocked into silence by his failure to lift his hammer, is made to believe that he’s lost practically everything for good. He thanks his brother for coming and apologizes. At the start of the movie, Thor isn’t one to apologize. He shouts back at his father, trashes his room, is easily provoked, and starts a war. Learning to let go of his pride and say sorry for his actions was a big step towards becoming a true “hero.”

Now I think the film could have spent more time on Thor reevaluating himself as a mortal. But someone else in a discussion elsewhere pointed out that the morning after Loki’s visit, he’s helping cook breakfast for his human acquaintances who took him in. Not a prince-like gesture, perhaps. And at the end, Thor offering himself to the Destroyer animated armor to spare the lives of innocent humans certainly resonated with me. I did feel that he’s a changed person at the end.

I’m not saying Thor doesn’t improve over the course of the film. I’m saying his redemption doesn’t seem really earned. Specifically, he’s never really confronted with his need for improvement — never really forced to face up to the consequences of his faults. There is never a moment of truth when Thor has to face the fact that he is on the wrong path.

Not being able to lift the hammer was only a token of Odin’s disapproval. Being shocked and humbled by Loki’s lies as a redemptive mechanism is unsatisfying, to say the least. Thor’s “moment of truth” is a lie?

The bottom line is this: The movie wants us to believe that when Thor goes to lift the hammer, he’s unworthy, and that later after the confrontation with the Destroyer, he’s suddenly worthy. I find that unsatisfying. Are we even really expected to believe that the Thor of the first act lacked the heroism to lay down his life to save the helpless? Really? I kind of doubt that. I kind of think that first-act Thor would be just as willing to die in battle to save the helpless as third-act Thor. I don’t see that he’s really grown much, and a shocked apology, elicited by a lie, doesn’t convince me otherwise.

It might be enough redemption for a 22-minute Saturday morning cartoon — the comparison was Suz’s, based on my description the night I came home from the screening — but a big-screen popcorn epic should give us more than that.

As for Thor vs. Iron Man, I’m pretty sure I’d rate both Iron Man films higher, not just the original. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Thor is sort of like Iron Man 2 with Scarlett Johanssen but not Gwyneth Paltrow, and with Sam Rockwell but not Mickey Rourke.

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Re. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Finally saw this mess of a movie. I couldn’t sit through it at home, so I can only imagine how it worked in a theater. I am sure that plenty of people have explained to you why Hermione had to make her parents forget she had ever lived, so I won’t bother. The thing that gets me about the movie — which you wouldn’t know, as you are not a fan of the books — is how anyone could take an exciting and engaging story and make it so boring. Not to mention ugly. HP is set in the milieu of British architecture: Oxford, Westminster Abbey, etc. One shot of the recent royal wedding shows how bright and gorgeous it all is. All the HP films are ugly and gray. Who in the world would ever want to go to Hogwarts? Grr.

Plenty of people have tried to explain to me why Hermione “had” to rob her parents of their parenthood. I remain profoundly unconvinced.

Was it to protect Hermione or her parents? If it was to protect her parents, what parent would take that Faustian bargain? Purchase your safety and security at the expense of your memories of your own offspring?

I would rather brave all the furies of hell and dark magic with the love of my child in my heart than live to a hundred in perfect peace and tranquility believing myself childless. I would crawl across broken glass and burning coals to do so. No child of mine has the right to decide otherwise on my behalf. It is the greatest crime against filial piety I can imagine — a crime worse than parricide. I would rather my child kill me outright and let me die a father.

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Re. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

I have some beef with your review of Deathly Hallows Part 1. As to the first criticism of the double agent scenario, I didn’t find his action bothersome. It seemed reasonable to keep up appearances. To stay quiet would’ve appeared suspicious given that both sides know he is a double agent, Voldemort expected information. Not to give Voldemort anything would’ve damaged his credibility. Perhaps this is made more clear in the books, but it didn’t strike me as odd in the movie.

The other criticism, on the defensive spells of the house, I thought was actually a bit surprising considering it is addressed in the very scene. Who put these defensive spells on the property? The Ministry. Just before the attack on the wedding reception, they hear a voice that tells them that the Ministry has been infiltrated, which means the protective spells are gone, allowing an attack on the property.

I’ve heard the latter explanation given — but only from people who already knew the explanation from the books. It may be that there’s enough information in the film to figure it out, but it wasn’t clear to me on first viewing, anyway.

On the prior point, is the agent’s cover — and the damage done if he doesn’t produce the information — really so crucial that the lives of Harry’s associates can readily be sacrificed for it?

For that matter, isn’t the double agent’s “declared” status at this point now with the villains? What bona fides does he still have, or is he known by Voldemort to have, with Harry’s inner circle of defenders, by virtue of which he would necessarily have the secret information in question — and so certainly that the failure to produce it would blow his cover?

What exactly does the double agent ultimately accomplish by preserving his cover? After sacrificing Mad-eye Moody and potentially others in the battle over Little Whinging, does he ultimately serve any greater purpose on the good side? Or does his double agentry ultimately serve only Voldemort? Did Moody die for nothing?

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Re. Lilo & Stitch; The Incredibles

I wanted to thank you for your review of Lilo & Stitch. It prompted me to rent the movie and I was delighted to see it live up to expectations and more. I suspect you won’t mind, but since your review prompted my watching the movie, I mentioned it in my own blog and reflection on the movie within the context of Lent. Thank you for a thoughtful reflection that prompted me to see a movie I wouldn’t otherwise consider.

I watched The Incredibles again with my family — this time with the subtitles (a habit I picked up after watching the “Firefly” series and movie finale Serenity and realizing I was missing a lot of clever bits of extra dialogue).

Because of the subtitles, I was alerted to the name of the island where Mr. Incredible goes to fight the Omnidroid — it is mentioned in his last trip to the island as they approach: “Nomanisan”. Yet again the folks at Pixar showed an awareness of their plot, the themes in the movie (which you succinctly pointed out in your review) — as well as subtle and clever ways to highlight them if you’re looking for them — and sometimes even when you’re not.

I wonder what other little treasures are hiding in the subtitles (or elsewhere) of Pixar’s films? I look forward to finding out in the re-watching — this time with the subtitles on! Thank you for your work here at Decent Films, and God bless you.

Fr. Maurer

Thanks for writing, Father. Yes, Pixar films are incredibly dense with notable detail. I was aware of Nomanisan Island — you can see it on one of the computer screens somewhere — although like a lot of stuff it is very subtle and you don’t discover it right away. I don’t know how many hidden gems have as much Catholic/Christian cred as Nomanisan Island, with its echoes of Merton and Donne, but a lot of it is pretty cool in one way or another. Next time you watch The Incredibles, look sharp when Bob Parr’s boss is sharpening pencils and stacking them on the desk and see if you can catch the company’s evil slogan on the side of the pencils.

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Re. Star Wars

Hello, I’ve been enjoying your very insightful reviews of the Star Wars saga. I did feel compelled to point out one thing in Episode III that is often incorrectly regarded as a plot hole, which you mention, but which is implied by virtue of lineage: you mention Leia’s remembrance of her mother’s visage when she was very young. You point out that even children will note the seeming-contradiction here, since Padme dies merely seconds after having held the infant Leia up to her face.

I believe Lucas was drawing upon Leia’s strong Force-sensitivity for having the image of her mother burned into her memory, even while only moments old. This is partially highlighted from the same scene in Episode VI where she is vaguely trying to recall and describe her mother, when her brother Luke prompts her with how the Force is strong in his family, and that she has it too.

I admit Lucas should throw in an extra line there for the upcoming Blu-Ray release that would address this issue a bit more clearly, but alas, that’s the line of logic I regularly see within my own research on the matter. Keep up the great and intriguing work you do!

Your proposal is ingenious, but I have two caveats.

  1. It seems to me you haven’t solved the problem, only inverted it. Why wouldn’t Luke remember their mother?
  2. Clearly the implication in Return of the Jedi is that Leia remembers their mother because she was raised by her for at least a few years. Anything else is retconning on the basis of subsequent pre-mythologizing. That’s okay if the retconning works, but in this case it’s dodgy at best.
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Re. The Dark Knight films

What is your opinion of the addition of Catwoman, to be played by Anne Hathaway, in the third Batman film? I am worried that this may bring, for the first time in this franchise, an element of unnecessary sensuality. I think Nolan is a fine filmmaker but even with The Dark Knight he came close to crossing the line in terms of explicit, onscreen violence and mayhem. It seems that the franchise is departing from the inspiring, relatively clean tone set by Batman Begins.

For me, there’s a lot riding on The Dark Knight Rises, still a long way off at this writing. The Dark Knight is a brilliant film, but the darkness is so black, with so few grace notes. The series desperately needs to go out of a triumphant, redemptive high note. A concluding film like that will cement my high regard for The Dark Knight. If Nolan goes the other way, a good bit of my affection for The Dark Knight may turn to ashes in my mouth.

I’m all too aware that Nolan is capable of ruthlessly embracing a pitch-black ending. Memento and The Prestige are prime examples of that, and Inception very well may be as well. On the other hand, Nolan’s Insomnia adds a more redemptive ending to its source material, so it’s hard to know which way he’ll go here. Is the title itself a clue of which way The Dark Knight Rises is headed? I hope so.

Nothing in Nolan’s career to date leads me to be particularly concerned about gratuitous sensuality just because Catwoman has now joined the cast. In his earlier work he’s had ample opportunity to go that route if he wanted to — the dreamscape of Inception is an obvious example — and he hasn’t bothered to do so. I think it’s reasonable to suppose that Nolan’s Catwoman will probably be within the bounds of the taste and and judgment that he’s shown so far. Of course, we won’t know for sure until we see more of his vision.

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Re. American Beauty

Just found your site and I read a few reviews. Good thought provocation.

I enjoyed American Beauty for the artistic value and I also thought that it made a valid spiritual point. I was left with the impression that Kevin Spacey’s character had intentionally removed himself from contributing (to many things including society, his marriage, his duties as a parent and role model). This was why at the end of his life, it seemed so empty. I think we are supposed to try to be beautiful (through holiness), and Lester rejected that notion completely. I am tired of seeing characters make that choice and get away with it. I also thought that the word “American” in the title indicated that Lester’s sort of behavior is becoming the American way of life.

I like your reading of American Beauty better than what I think the movie is actually saying, although it doesn’t change my thoughts about the movie’s real meaning. I agree that there’s some sort of critique of Lester, but don’t you think the movie also celebrates his behavior to some extent? Isn’t his behavior in some way held up as a justifiable or understandable rejection of all that’s wrong with bourgeois American suburban life?

In particular, do you see any indication in the film that contributing to society, marriage and so forth is held up as a worthy goal? As I see it, marriage, family, society, work and so forth are all part of the hypocritical trap that Lester reasonably and rightly rebels against. Lester is more enlightened than most of the other people in the film; only Ricky is more enlightened, and I don’t see any evidence that Ricky’s enlightenment is leading him in the direction of becoming a good citizen and pillar of society. I’m pretty sure the filmmakers would regard such a move as a betrayal of the values he represents.

I love the insight of a friend from Arts & Faith: In the end, Lester refrains from sleeping with Angela, not because he finally realizes that a middle-aged man shouldn’t be dallying with a teenaged tart, but because it turns out that Angela isn’t really the experienced sexpot she pretends to be — that she’s actually a frightened virgin. Were she really as ready and willing as Lester had fantasized, the story would have gone in a completely different direction.

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Re. What Are the Decent Films?

I’ve just found out that any form of willed sexual arousal outside of marriage is a grave sin. I have been a Catholic all of my 36 years and counting and I’ve never been informed. I was aghast at first and questioned the truth of it but after a little research it seems it’s true.

So, my question is whether this moves the goalposts regarding what is acceptable to watch in a movie. For example I would have have enjoyed watching a passionate kiss between unmarried men and women but would have averted my eyes at anything more explicit but now the fact that French kissing, snogging et al are acts of grave immorality for non-married Catholics I conclude I will have to avert my eyes there too.

Church teaching in numerous documents, notably including Inter Mirifica, the Vatican II decree on the media of social communications, talk about the need for restraint in the depiction of matters “which deserve reverent handling or which, given the baneful effect of original sin in men, could quite readily arouse base desires in them.” This certainly includes depictions of sensuality and sexuality. Restraint does not necessarily mean total avoidance, but it does mean a prudent attempt to avoid near occasions of sin.

To an extent, the requirements of prudence are relative to the condition of the individual. Having been both a teenaged boy and a 40-year-old married man, I can confidently say that what is a near occasion of sin for one is not necessarily the same as for the other. However, there are general principles that apply for everyone or nearly everyone.

Some baselines: On the one hand, it is certainly sinful to watch or use any presentation with the aim or intention of becoming aroused. On the other hand, merely becoming aroused while watching a particular presentation is not necessarily sinful, nor does it necessarily mean that that presentation is sinful to watch. Arousal is affected by the will but is significantly involuntary. One must not recklessly expose oneself to material that is clearly intended to arouse. However, the mere possibility that one may be aroused by a particular presentation is not necessarily an iron-clad reason to avoid it.

If one finds oneself becoming aroused, then averting one’s eyes is certainly an appropriate response. On the other hand, there really is a danger in the opposite direction of hyper-vigilance. Treating everything as a potential occasion of sin and being overly concerned with the possibility of arousal can foster a forbidden fruit allure and can actually diminish one’s ability to respond appropriately and with self-control. I’ve written about this in a blog post that you may find helpful.

On a related note, I have heard of cases where people had cultivated such an ingrained habit of rejecting arousal and every kind of sexual response, who went on to marry — and found that they had difficulty turning on a dime from “off” to “on.” Appreciation of and even responsiveness to beauty and attractiveness is not the same as illicit desire or willed arousal and is not something to be resisted in the same way.

Even if passionate kissing between unmarried parties is sinful, I don’t find that it’s a near occasion of sin for me to watch it. I can imagine that it might be for someone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m unmoved by it (if I am, it’s a poor movie, or at least a poor scene), any more than I’m unmoved by an actress’s beauty (or the beauty of any attractive woman). But appreciation of beauty and empathic enjoyment of the happiness of characters in love aren’t the same as sinful arousal, nor are they necessarily a dangerous slippery slope.

It is necessary to avoid near occasions of sin, but don’t miss that leading adjective “near.” “Near” is a relative term; there is a real and meaningful distinction, though no hard and fast line, between the near occasions of sin that we must avoid and remote occasions of sin that we should not worry about. We must attempt to avoid every sin, but we must not attempt to avoid every occasion of sin, however remote, especially since it would be impossible to do so; “otherwise we would have to go out of the world.” Even if I retreat into Carthusian solitude, I cannot escape every occasion and circumstance that might lead me to sin. The battle is not fought that way. Ultimately, sin is not “out there” but “in here.”

And it is Christ who saves me, not my avoidance of absolutely everything that could be any sort of occasion of sin. And in saving me Christ calls me to live my vocation, which is not to the monastery, nor to aspire to a monastic lifestyle in the world, but to live in the world without being of the world. I have little faith in myself, but great faith in Christ, and this gives me, not presumption or foolhardiness, but confidence and perspective. It’s important to exercise prudence, but it’s more important to keep our eyes on Christ, and, in the process, we shouldn’t worry too much.

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Re. Source Code

From the review of Source Code:

In the end, at least one nagging question lingers. Every time Goodwin and Rutledge throw the switch and Colter wakes up in Sean’s body, what happens to Sean? It’s a question that can’t necessarily be mooted as easily as you might think.

Yes it can. Colter’s existance is only in bits and bites playing out in the source code or programming which is the eight minutes of memory. Sean is dead but the program or code of his last memories is being interfaced by Colter. Sean doesn’t go anywhere because Colter doesn’t enter him (Colter is not going back in time) he just enters the coding of his memories.

That’s what Rutledge thinks is happening. That’s not what the denouement indicates is really happening. [Spoilers follow.]

In the end it seems that Colter isn’t merely interfacing with memories — he’s actually interacting with alternate realities, with real consequences in each. In the end, Colter winds up saving all the passengers on the train in another reality — and in that reality he remains in Sean’s body, presumably to the end of Sean’s natural days.

That’s not a moral problem for Colter; that Sean would have died anyway, and he saved everyone else on the train. But it’s a narrative problem for the film, because it doesn’t engage the question and seems not to want the audience to think about it.

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Re. The King’s Speech

Why does The King’s Speech have a R rating? Thanks.

Mostly for a scene that I consider entirely unobjectionable in which the protagonist has to say the F word repeatedly. It’s a great scene and a terrific film. See it. I practically guarantee you won’t be offended.

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